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'People are just really scared' | Some Fairfax teachers say they'd rather resign than return to school

The Teachers' Union released a survey saying 85% of teachers do not have confidence in returning to in-person learning currently.

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Just a half-hour before Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. deadline to return a back-to-school survey, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers released results of its own set of surveys.

The bottom line? Many teachers are worried.

“We are asking that Fairfax County Public Schools delay the reopening until it is safe,” one union board member said. 

“A lot of people are just really scared," Emily VanDerhoff, a first-grade teacher and executive board member, said. "One of our members, she's lost multiple family members to COVID. She is personally at risk and she's just at a loss for what to do.”

VanDerhoff said nearly 1,300 members were surveyed about the options FCPS presented, which were return to in-person learning, file for disability, take a leave of absence or resign. 

According to the union's survey, 26.8% of teachers would consider taking a leave of absence of resigning, while 26.1% were still undecided. 

“That leaves over half of the people we surveyed not certain that they would come back in the building if asked," VanDerhoff said. "I think that we really stand to lose a lot of staff." 

RELATED: Some Fairfax Co. Public Schools will resume in-person learning. Staff says they were initially given 48 hours to decide or quit

In a message on social media, School Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand said the phased-in approach only requires about 3.5% of the school community, or 653 teachers to serve 6,707 high-need students. They include those taking certified tech courses, preschool autism students and English learners. The cohort learning model calls for small classrooms between five and 10 students.

VanDerhoff said many of the teachers who were selected for possible return filed for disability, but she said they were denied by the school department.  

According to FCPS they received “more than 2,000 requests for accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act – an 8,000% increase.”

“We realize the hardships and sacrifices made by our staff and sincerely empathize with them," FCPS said in a statement. "FCPS also realizes that many students have difficulty with learning in a virtual environment.”

VanDerhoff suggested that the school district intentionally pair up teachers willing to return to the classroom with the students who are struggling the most with distance learning. 

The debate over whether or not to return to the classroom for in-person learning has some teachers considering resignation, including Woodson High School instructional assistant Tia Williams.

Williams, who is diabetic and has severe asthma, said the risks of being back around students brought obvious health concerns.

"I love the kids that I work with and I love going into the building, but I don’t think it’s safe right now," she said. "I'd be going back into the building and not being sure if everything is clean.” 

Williams added that it was tough getting some students to wear masks and properly follow safety protocols.

With the start of the proposed reopening getting closer, she was still considering what to do next after five years at Woodson.

"I might be forced to resign because I have to think about the health of my family," she said. "[The county] wasn't thinking about us. They were thinking about the parents and children and what’s best for them. They weren’t thinking about the people that have to teach them.” 

Following the press conference with the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, School Board member Abrar Omeish spoke to WUSA 9 and said schools would be held to strict sanitizing guidelines to make sure students and staff stayed safe.

"It’s a very controlled set of folks and it’s going to be done with all the best practice measures and sanitation," she said. "It’s a slow phase-in. There’s a reason for that. It allows us to roll back should there be any reason to be concerned.” 

Omeish added that the decision to reopen schools came after plenty of discussion and analysis of the pandemic in Fairfax County.

Moving forward, she said going back to the classroom would play a pivotal role in improving education for students.

"As of right now, we have kids who are essentially not receiving proper instruction. We look at kids with special needs, English language learners," she said. "We certainly don’t want this to be any invitation for folks to leave the system or any suggestion that they’re not prioritized, or they’re not valued. We would never want to say it’s time to put yourself at risk or it’s time to put your life at risk. This would only be done if we had some level of assurance of its safety.”

RELATED: 'We all have anxiety' | DC, Fairfax teachers voice concerns about returning to classrooms

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